Why Breaking Character Wins: Bruno and Beyond

 

Last night on the Late Show with David Letterman, Sacha Baron Cohen appeared as a guest to promote his new movie, “Bruno.” And that’s exactly what happened: Baron Cohen, and not Baron Cohen in character as the Austrian gay fashion reporter, sat down on the couch.

The result? Hilarity:

Two week’s ago Baron Cohen was a guest on the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien. It was funny, sure, but predictable:

Comparing the appearances shows how effective it can be to drop the character and show the audience where the comedy comes from. Baron Cohen has been described as a “recluse” who spends his time in public in one of his three, hugely recognizable characters. But the man himself is a riot – smart and quick, and a fantastic storyteller. Let’s look at some past experiences with comedians in character:

Stephen Colbert often keeps the angry conservative persona up through late night show interviews, but he shed it for a 60 Minutes interview:


 

60 Minutes with Stephen Colbert

Sometimes characters can still be effective, like when a barely-known (at the time) Danny McBride assumed his “Foot Fist Way” character of Fred Simmons for a Conan interview:

My Conan Apperance

 

And here’s the wild card: Joaquin Phoenix on Letterman. Character? We still don’t know:

Bruno, like Borat, is a crowd-pleasing character that translates well on talk shows and, clearly, on the big screen. But the audience enjoys being able to feel “in” on the joke too. Seeing Baron Cohen last night on Letterman allows the crowd to get to know the actor on an entirely different level – and appreciate the show put on when he dons the blond wig and belly shirt even more.

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